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Pickle Me This

February 24, 2008

Falling by Anne Simpson

Unsurprisingly the emphasis of Anne Simpson’s novel Falling arrives in unexpected places. Unsurprising, as one might say that Simpson is a poet first and foremost– she has won the Atlantic Poetry Prize, the Griffin Poetry Prize, she has been shortlisted for a Pushcart– but perhaps that is too easy. And Falling is Simpson’s second novel after all. However I will still assert she is a poet, for poetry is absolutely Falling‘s greatest strength. The usual bones of noveldom– plot and character– to some extent jettisoned for the sake of poetics instead.

And with these poetics, instead of a novel Simpson has assembled a series of moments. Moments so singularly perfect, absolutely realized right down to every atom, that the novel works: the girl Lisa drowned in a stream, the water moving over her fingertips; Ingrid, her distraught mother at the funeral being comforted by her ex-husband, and the hole in the toe of her panty-hose; her brother Damian, unconvinced that there was nothing he could have done, forgetting his mother’s car and arriving home in the morning, and though his sister is dead, he’s fallen in love with a girl.

This is a world constructed not by verisimilitude, but by language. The characters themselves not so much people as a reason for the words, the images, for the moments. And because the language is so remarkable, this is enough to build a world upon. Ordinary images rendered extraordinary– pictures of a brother and a sister joined by a hinge, the thick heat of summer, the imprint of Lisa’s toe inside a shoe. The falls, and that rushing water, which becomes more the guiding force of the novel than a plot is.

Some sections of the book do demonstrate that Simpson is capable of more plot-driven writing. Following an odd but lovely sequence of chapters, which are otherwise unnumbered throughout the book but here counted down from ten– liftoff instead of falling, as Damian finally confronts the force of his grief– causality is apparent, tension is resonant. One thing leads to another, as novels have taught us to expect, and maybe I would have liked more of this, but then perhaps this isn’t the sort of novel Simpson was writing.

She is writing something quieter than this, something subtler. The rushing river and falls a metaphor for life, but also for the state of life in grief. And so the characters will not be so clearly outlined, merely being swept along. Which is only a bit unsatisfying in the case of Lisa, who is just thought of, and yet the reason for the story. Here is a novel constructed around an absence, but one that remains undefined, which is tricky– I would have liked to know her better. But the metaphor works for the other characters, inside their state of grief and amidst the thickness of their atmosphere. The noise, the rush, unceasing.

So perhaps as readers we too must give in to the current, letting us carry us where it may. Here we will find spots of absolutely illumination, and of beauty. And just as it does for the grieving, maybe even for the dead, surely the current will take us someplace new. Follow that poem, momentum enough– towards the river “opened up, opened wide.”

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